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what we want and what we need/has been confused*

February 15, 2012

The music thumped, driven from monstrous speakers and funneling through the crowd of spectators.  It was chilly but bright, and sunshine glinted off the sunglasses of the happy parade-watchers on either side of me.  I glanced at each of my children.  First I saw my three year-old, agape at the brilliantly-hued parade floats, absorbing each instrument of the high school marching band as it danced by; then my five year-old, who had learned today’s critical lesson in less than a minute.  Hands outstretched, smile wide, he cheered above the pounding bass.  Clapping and yelling, “Hey!  Throw me something!” he was immediately rewarded with a handful of iridescent plastic beads.  He was aglow with triumph,  jumping up and down because he just couldn’t help himself. At a family-friendly Mardi Gras parade last week, it took my child only seconds to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between performance and reward.

This float isn't from the actual parades we attended, but it's pretty cool. (source)

The parade spectators who stand sedately by and watch each  float pass (are there any?) profit little in the currency of Mardi Gras swag.  The stuffed animals, the plastic cups, the garish rainbow-colored necklaces… those go to the the loudest and most animated along the parade route.  At family-friendly parades like the ones we attended, the good stuff also goes to the adorable kids who smile and wave… who perform.  Even my three year-old quickly learned to dance for the floats and reap their bounty.

The spectacle was fascinating to observe, and it has me thinking today about motivation, performance, and reward.

I’m not proud to admit it, but I have always been at least partially motivated by the applause of others.  While I would love to be a person entirely driven by the urge to do good, to create beauty, or to improve the planet, I’ve often been motivated by a desire to please other people.  This isn’t my worst character flaw, and it’s resulted in some positive outcomes.  Still, it bugs me.  I think it is fine to want the validation of others; I just don’t want to need it.

More important, at this stage in my life, is the fact that I don’t want my children to need it.  My older son, the five year-old so skilled at eliciting plastic treasures from Mardi Gras floats, is a born entertainer.  Nothing thrills him more than making his friends laugh, a fact which occasionally gets him into trouble at school (“He’s lucky because he is an excellent multi-tasker,” says his teacher, “however, most of his classmates are not, and they can get distracted by him.”).  As I watched him entertain at his class party yesterday, reveling in his friends’ applause, relishing their laughter, I wished for him the ability to simultaneously want the appreciation of others and not need it.  I want him to be sustained by something so much wider and deeper than applause.

There are so many ways to teach this lesson — “Don’t Build A Life On Other People’s Praise,” we’ll call it — to my children, and I welcome any suggestions you may have.  I know that teaching by example is my best bet, so I’m really going to try to avoid some old behaviors.  I’m going to aim to say the kind thing, not just what gets the easy laugh.  I’m going to be aware of cravings for approval, and try to examine what lies beneath them.  I’m going to filter through what I want versus what I need, as challenging as that might be.

That’s a tall order for today.  I think I’d better do some laundry now. 

(Oh, and I really do need to do laundry.  I’m not just seeking approval for what a diligent housekeeper I am.  Seriously.)

Today, I hope you have everything you need and much of what you want.  Thank you, as always, for showing up.

*This is a lyric from R.E.M.’s Finest Worksong.  It isn’t my very favorite song of theirs, but I can’t seem to get it out of my head today.  For that reason, I share it with you.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2012 8:08 am

    Such an interesting and thought-provoking post! I too, am a people-pleaser and an applause-seeker (I think to some extent, all of us are), and I am constantly catching myself wondering if I would be/act/speak differently in certain moments without an audience. I think it’s a great lesson to teach our children, that balance between self-acceptance and also being the kind of person others can/do like. It’s tough, and something I still struggle with. Thanks so much for writing/sharing this. I really connected to it. xoxo

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